The Prime Minister recently declared that students should be obliged to take maths classes until the age of 18. This statement appeared seemingly out of the blue, without consultation with school and college leaders. He set the scene of a world underpinned by data and statistics, and emphasised a need for analytical skills, saying we’d be letting our children down by sending them out into the world without such skills.
It’s a policy that was met with extensive criticism. Concerns have been raised as to how it’ll be done, where the teachers will come from and more. But there’s one other issue that nobody in the government seems to have acknowledged.
Literacy is being left out
As a writer, my particular issue with this (rather bold) statement is that Rishi seems to be unaware that the level of literacy among adults in the UK is… pretty poor. OK, the latest statistics available are a decade old (2012), but according to the National Literacy Trust they stated that 7.1 million adults – 16.4% of the population – have very poor literacy skills.
That’s a lot. A lot of people who, for whatever reason, cannot read at the basic level, whose skills are limited to understanding short, simple texts. It is these people – not those who didn’t take maths to A-level – who struggle to find employment, to fill in forms and applications, to understand government policies, medical guidance, and nutritional labels.
The knock-on effects of this are manifold. Illiterate people are less able to access and apply health-related information, leading to higher rates of disease, accidents and other health concerns. There is also an established link between illiteracy and crime in both developed and developing countries. Further, those who are functionally illiterate tend to hold the lowest levels of employment and the lowest paying jobs, with opportunities to earn higher wages limited. They often have to prioritise work before education, and their expectations regarding schooling may lower, leading to what the World Literacy Foundation terms a ‘cycle of disadvantage through generations’.
Why is functional literacy so crucial?
Here’s another statistic Rishi and his government should be making note of: According to the World Literacy Foundation, illiteracy in the UK cost the economy around £80 billion in 2018. A prior report by the same organisation estimated that £23.3 billion of UK taxpayer money is spent annually on benefits and social programmes.
Literacy begins at the earliest age. According to the report, children with parents in professional jobs had heard some 23 million more words by the time they started school than those from more disadvantaged groups. A Harvard study showed that the preschool years are crucial to development, with over a million neural connections formed each second. Each second. So this difference is the very root of the struggle, since children with a poor preschool foundation in literacy typically don’t perform as well at school, are more likely to drop out early, and are more likely to face poorer employment opportunities and social outcomes.
The importance of functional literacy is surely clear, not only from an economic perspective, but also in terms of the health and wellbeing of individuals. Instead of focusing on schooling in maths until the age of 18, the government should be investing in nurseries and preschool support, enabling children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds to have the same opportunities for literacy as those from more privileged backgrounds. Indeed, a 2018 study by Heckman found that investment in quality early years programmes results in improved educational, health, social and economic outcomes, which leads to a 13% return on investment per annum.
Rishi, I think, is misguided if he thinks that taking maths until the age of 18 is going to make a significant difference. The real issue lies in closing the literacy gap during early childhood, and providing opportunities for language development and reading before children begin school.